Category Archives: Worldbuilding

Writing Appealing Action and Wondrous Worldbuilding

How I Layer Worldbuilding Within Action

Over the last few days, some friends in an online writing group and I have been discussing worldbuilding in our writing. Long time readers will know that worldbuilding is something of a passion for me and my own worldbuilding in The Bell Forging Cycle often draws compliments. So whenever there is an opportunity to chat about creating and exploring secondary worlds I’ll gladly join in.

One question came up and I thought it was interesting: can a writer maintain the breakneck pace of an action story and still worldbuild? As a writer who has written three action-oriented novels, I believe the answer is yes. I figured a quick post would be the perfect way to go a step further and explain how I maintain pace and still write a plot-forward scene that expands a world. Show don’t tell, right? To demonstrate I threw together a quick scene, you can read it in all of its trope-filled glory below.


My opponent was Ver, a kudär, one of the desert dwellers. He wore the leathers of a Stalwart, cut from the backs of the enormous lizards that reside deep in the shifting dunes. His was a caste accustomed to war, violence, and bloody hand-to-hand fighting. That didn’t bode well.

Ver beat his chest and threw a handful of dust in the air above his tattooed head. Around us, the crowd chanted, “VER! VER! VER!” in a steady throbbing rhythm.

I rolled my neck; feeling it pop, and shook my arms to keep them loose. I wondered if I looked nervous. A damned kudär, here, of all places. They tended to stick to the fringes, away from population centers. Kudär didn’t usually fight in sanctioned matches. I’d need to change strategies; perhaps I could—

The gong thummed, cutting off my thoughts. No time.

“Fight!”


So, let’s break it down. Here’s what I am doing in that tiny 143-word scene to expand the worldbuilding without interrupting the pace.

  • I’m establishing the action immediately. A fight is about to go down. Just calling out an opponent introduces the tension. The pace is set, let’s keep it up.
  • Relevance matters. Don’t throw in random details that don’t serve the scene. Keep your reader focused on what is happening in the moment.
  • I begin to hint at some interesting stuff without getting bogged down in details. Everything is focused on the fight and then rolls from there. This is key. As my friend Jim has said, think of worldbuilding as a spice. Like any good chef, you don’t want to over season. Give just enough to enliven the imagination without derailing. Should any of these ideas become critical to the plot, they can get revisited. But for now, keep them lean, so the action keeps moving. But there’s a lot there, consider:
    • The kudär. Who are apparently some sort of desert people?
    • They hunt giant lizards for leather.
    • Apparently, the kudär people operate under some kind of caste system.
    • Ver is a “Stalwart, ” and apparently that means he’s accustomed to fighting.
    • The kudär tend to avoid population centers. It’s rare to see one. Our narrator is surprised, this changes his strategy.
    • This match is somehow “sanctioned.” Which opens up a lot of questions. By whom? Why? What for?
  • I also threw in some personal rituals. Ver slaps his chest and throws dust like Lebron. I find little details like these important. Readers like personal connections. I feel like they go further in establishing character than most writers realize. Everyone has nervous tics or habitual fidgets. Play ’em up.

Seasoning worldbuilding elements throughout your story can help to expand the world. And you can do insert them anywhere. The trick is to layer in your deeper world, while you avoid reveling in it unless necessary. Reveling in detail is often where one finds the dreaded info dump. Remember: in the end, all things must serve the plot.

How about you? How do you enhance worldbuilding in your own work? What tricks do you use? Leave a comment and let us know!


Interested in my other articles on worldbuilding? Check out any of the links below.


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Right in the Feelies

Right in the Feelies

Last weekend, I finished reading Aldous Huxley famous dystopian novel, Brave New World. It was as good as I remembered and was a pleasure to re-read it during in my “Year of Classics.” But, this isn’t a post about classic dystopian novels; this is a post about storytelling and swag. Say whhhaaaat?

Allow me to explain how I got here. Within the novel, Huxley references “feelies” a sort-of hybrid source of entertainment where all senses are stimulated. While musing over this, I decided to do a little research. So I quickly googled the term and was surprised to learn that “feelie” was not only a Huxley invention (or a college-rock band from the eighties) it was also a slang term used in video games, particularly for a type of swag.

Feelies included with Infocom's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Feelies included with Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

A feelie was the name given to the bonus content included with the boxed versions of video games in the late eighties and early nineties. Props, booklets, coins, runes, histories, cloth maps, and much more. These started with Infocom titles such as ZorkPlanetfall, and the game version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Now, I realize that tchotchkes or swag is common across a lot of industries, and it’s something that crops up in the book industry as well. Go to any convention and you’ll come away with a haul, bookmarks, pens, bottle openers, tote bags, stickers, rubber bracelets, flyers. It’s popular and plentiful. I always have loads of swag at my table; I know many other authors do as well. Swag in its most rudimentary form is effectively an advertisement; feelies go a step further. They add a little something extra.

For example, Brandon Sanderson sells vials of allomantic metals similar to the ones allomancers imbibe in his Mistborn series. Hugh Howey once gave away Fallout Shelter passes (that doubled as USB drives) from his Wool series. In my own work, you can picture the dust-covered roaders of Bell Caravans wearing patches while on the trail. You get extra information from Wal’s notes scrawled on the Map of the Known Territories. There are hints at the history of the city in the illustrations on the Syringa postcard. These details are what separates a feelie from typical swag, a good feelie helps to expand its world as well as enhance it, they assist in making a fictional world feel real, they establish it as a place you can touch.

Feelies included with Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Feelies included with Origin’s Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

I’ve been a big fan of this approach for a long time. To me, it’s another aspect of worldbuilding. Only instead of with writing you’re doing it with objects. The feelie reminds me of an alternate reality game, going beyond the page to establish a real-world presence for our fictional creations and increasing immersiveness. My books have always been seeded with a little something extra so why not carry that over to other outlets as well? I’ve scattered extra stuff throughout websites, in bookmarks, in posts on this blog, and on Tumblr. The Bell Caravan patches come with Caravan Employee Registration documentation, stamped by the Lovaine Caravan Authority, of course, and signed by Wal. (It’s also full of subtle little references.) I find this attention to details adds little extra for the reader who is willing to put in the time. There’s something very engaging when you introduce someone something tangible to connect them to a piece of fiction. To me, that is much more interesting than a tote bag or tee shirt with a book cover on it.

Bell Caravans Patch with Included Employee Registration Form
Bell Caravans Patch with Included Caravan Employee Registration Form

I’m cooking up a few new ideas as well, so there’s always more to come. I’ve been dreaming up feelies for my secret fantasy project, and I have some great ideas for the Coal Belly series, and The Bell Forging Cycle (as I mentioned, some of the latter is already out there, providing one is willing to put in the legwork to discover it.) I love making stuff associated with my world, and I love sharing those creations with readers. (I even give away swag packs for free.)

Now, how about you? What do you think of feelies? Do you prefer them to regular swag or do you find them silly? What has been your favorite feelie you’ve purchased or received? Are you a creator who has made something extra for your world? I’d love to see your creations, and I’m sure others would as well. Feel free to post a link in the comments and share them with all of us.

Fallout 4 and and the Struggles of Consistent Worldbuilding

Fallout 4 and the Struggle of Consistent Worldbuilding

[!] Note: The following will contain minor spoilers for Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4. Consider yourself warned.


Last August I wrote an article exploring the masterful worldbuilding within George Miller’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Mad Max: Fury Road. [You can read it here.] It was easily my favorite film of 2015. There was a lot to love, both subtlety and nuance was scattered throughout the movie despite the fact that it was a two-hour action-packed car chase through a wasteland.

Well, this last fall the post-apocalyptic gods smiled on us twofold with the release of Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest post-apocalyptic role-playing game. I’ve long been a fan of the series ever since I played the first Fallout on my PC as a kid. So I was excited. Heck, I even went out and bought a PS4 specifically to check it out. Now, before I start nitpicking, I need to preface that Fallout 4 is not a bad game. It’s a game I have been enjoying. It’s a game I would recommend. But, I think just like films, music, books, and art we can cast a critical eye at specific elements of a video game while still enjoying the game as a whole.

I was initially going to entitle this piece Fallout 4 and the Failures of Worldbuilding, but I retracted a bit. Mainly because that is both overly dramatic and clickbait garbage. Also, because in a lot of ways and in many places Fallout 4 has great worldbuilding, it’s just inconsistent. As a result, Fallout 4 continually pulls me out of the moment. Despite wanting you to engage with the world on a personal level, it doesn’t allow us to suspend our disbelief long enough to lose ourselves in its world. This makes it feel manufactured—it’s a post-apocalyptic Disneyland that is trying to be something more. A lot of that is because it falls short in one of the most important and fundamental principles of worldbuilding: it tells you one thing and then shows you something else.

Fallout 4 Intro: The Big One Hits

First, some backstory: Fallout 4 takes place in an alternate reality two-hundred years after a thermonuclear war nearly wipes out humanity, your character—a survivor who awakened from a state of suspended animation in an underground vault—is thrust into an unforgiving and often violent world in the search for a kidnapped child. Now, missing child aside, remember that established time frame: two-hundred years. It’s important.

The discrepancy between that origin story and the world I was playing in first hit me ten minutes into the game. Up until then, I assumed maybe forty to fifty years had passed. The world certainly seemed like it was emerging from disaster, but when your Mr. Handy unit, Codsworth, introduced the timespan a lot of the following worldbuilding began to fall apart.

Fallout4_002

“A bit over 210 actually, sir. Give or take a little for the Earth’s rotation and some minor dings to the ole’ chronometer.”

When the player first emerges from the Vault, you come across the remnants of people who didn’t survive. Piles of skeletons lay outside the gate to the Vault, skeletons still wearing the clothes they died in, which didn’t make much sense. Here they are exposed to the elements, and a corpse’s dress is still recognizable as a dress? This is seen in other things as well. Many structures still stand despite little or no maintenance. Some still have power. Often these sorts of niggling details are explained away using Ragnarok-Proofing, the concept that objects in the world (buildings, robots, heck, even clothes) are just made better. So metal doesn’t rust in the same way, clothing doesn’t wear regularly, and power sources last much longer, etc. And, some of that exists, the nuclear cells powering the Commonwealth’s robots are a good example, and if that was all I’d accept it and move on. But that isn’t all, it cascades from there.

Fallout 4: Remains of Boston

Two-hundred years is a long time. Two-hundred years ago my home city, Seattle, didn’t exist. My state, Washington, hadn’t even been conceived. Most of America lived on the East Coast and had no idea that in fifty years they were going to be in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, in Fallout 4’s world that two-hundred years doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. If fact, it barely looks like any time has passed. Most of the world remains a burnt husk. Nothing “new” feels permanent. Most settlements are hastily constructed shantytowns, cobbled together from the remnants. What civilization does exist, happens to be a loose collection of scraped-together tribes with little or no regard for one another. Compare this to Mad Max: Fury Road, in the first ten minutes of the movie we saw societies, hierarchies, and civilization, we saw cities, small and large, and even trade routes.

We’ve been told it’s two-hundred years after a terrible event but we’re not shown that, or what we’re shown doesn’t line up to support that. Not in any conceivable fashion. These sort of inconsistencies with the details continue to appear throughout the game. We read terminal entries about daily struggles of survival, only to be shown the corpses of those who entered the logs were sitting on an arsenal. For whatever reason the citizens of Goodneighbor have the means to make custom and complex neon signs, but asking them to clean up two-hundred years worth of rubble around their residences is below their pay grade. We meet a girl with a strangely thick Irish accent, and together we stumbled across the remains of people who apparently died together during the middle of their twelve-step meeting despite being in a protected shelter. We read concerns over a raider’s kidnapped sister and an antagonistic raider band, but we never get to explore that narrative. Instead, we get to fight the raiders. The results of this action? Slightly different terminal entries and a [Cleared] tag. These sort of scenes happens frequently, and as I kept playing, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was such unrealized potential. Minor discrepancies are noticeable, and because of this, the world of Fallout 4 often falls flat, it lacks the heart and soul that would make it feel alive.

Fallout4_003

It’s a disappointment because there are times where the world is rich. There are plenty of engaging characters (Valentine), and some fascinating locations (Salem, Covenant), and some interesting factions (The Railroad). Many times there are places where the game does shine. But those pieces are few and far between, and often they don’t seem to connect. Fallout 4 feels like it’s more concerned about being a first-person shooter than it is about fulfilling its pedigree of being a deep and multifaceted role-playing game. It’s more interested in creating small vignettes than a fully realized world. It wants you to strive for that next perk instead of that moment in its stories where you feel an emotional tug. It’s an amusement park ride that, while fun, still feels just like a ride.”


“…out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world world Fallout 4 is wanting to create.”


These moments introduce questions in the world’s consistency. After all, consistent worlds are largely more believable worlds. In some cases, Fallout 4 is an improvement on its predecessor, Fallout 3. [See the Shandification of Fallout video.] It answers some of those big questions (What do they eat?) that were never answered in previous games. But strange out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world Fallout 4 is wanting to create. They’re not asking open-ended questions that leave us wondering. Instead, they’re introducing concepts that pull us out of the moment.

Both Fallout and Mad Max are near and dear to me, and both have been influences in my own post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. Like both, my world of the Territories also takes place generations after an epic disaster. In fact, similar to Fallout 4, it has been so long since the apocalypse that the return of the Great Old Ones has faded into historical myth.

Within The Bell Forging Cycle civilizations have come and gone. Societies, religions, and nations have risen, expanded, and sometimes fallen. The scars of the disaster are there, and they’re clear and apparent to the people that inhabit the planet, but as Roland Deschain often says in The Dark Tower series, “the world has moved on.” Change has occurred, consistent change. There are certainly nods to post-apocalyptic tropes, in some places technology’s growth has been stymied, and people still use and seek out technology from the past. That’s part of the fun. Exploring the ideas inherent in survival after a catastrophe is one of the reasons why we read post-apocalyptic fiction. But, life hasn’t frozen. People have found other ways to solve their problems; nothing has remained static. Regression can only exist for so long; life is tenacious and robust, and when it comes to post-apocalyptic worlds (or any world for that matter), that’s a good thing for creators to remember.

WITNESS

Mad Max: Fury Road and the Art of Worldbuilding

Note: The following will contain shiny and chrome spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. Consider yourself warned.


Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. As writers, we’ve been given this advice time and time again. And it’s good advice and one that we should all take to heart. Lately, I have been working on a series of blog posts focusing on my theories and strategies around worldbuilding. However, after seeing George Miller’s incredible Mad Max: Fury Road not once, but twice in theaters (a rarity for me) I wanted to jump ahead of my series. I think the movie serves as an excellent example of how any storyteller can properly worldbuild.

Mad Max: Fury Road

So often I see new writers struggle with their worldbuilding. Both epic fantasy and hard sci-fi suffers from this problem, but it can happen in any genre. It’s easy for us to want to explain every detail. We know the backstories for our characters, we understand how our world works, we know the religions, the species, the cultures, the cities, the weather patterns, and so much more about our worlds. It’s exciting and fun, and so often we choose the dullest way to explain that: exposition. It’s hard not to fall into the trap. We want to share all this with the reader. We’re excited about it! But instead of focusing on plot, characters, and the story, we spend significantly more time on exposition talking about the world and less time on telling a good story and let the world reveal itself naturally. This is what Fury Road does perfectly and why I think it’s such a wonderful example.

Now, we should establish this is an action movie, so it’s fast paced and intense. But it’s also bizarre and fantastic and seems almost dreamlike in its strangeness. But it works, and it’s believable, despite its absurdity. And it works because of the way Miller handles the worldbuilding. Unlike most modern action movies, Fury Road doesn’t slow itself down to explain every nuanced detail to the viewer. It doesn’t speak down to the audience. No character goes into long speeches about how things got this way. Instead, with a few short scenes the wasteland gets established as a place. We understand who Max is (a survivor with a haunted past) what his goals and motivations are (to survive) and how he has ended up in the predicament he is in (captured by Immortun Joe and his War Boys). Along the way, we are introduced to the citadel and the civilization that has been built up around it. And this is all before the title card appears.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Miller continues this style throughout the rest of the film. So much is revealed, and Miller spends more time showing, and never slows down to tell and explain every detail. Everyone reacts as if all the strangeness is just perfectly normal, and it works. It was refreshing. In the first part of the movie, before we even get to the chase scenes the viewer is presented with a vignette of short scenes that allow us to understand the motives of the War Boys, their cult of V8, how they behave with one another, and even their social structure. In other films, we’d get voice overs explaining how everything works, or we’d have several scenes of slow dialog that spells it all out. However, Miller doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He recognizes that the viewer is smart, and presents it all as plot and moves on.

This is the subtle art of worldbuilding at some of its finest and writers should take note. By the time Furiosa flees with the War Rig, and before we are introduced to the Wives we have all the information we need on the setting. We understand the world, it feels alive, lived in, and deeply rich in culture and history. It allows us to understand why Furiosa is doing what she does, and why the Wives want to flee Immortun Joe. Even the characters are revealed through their actions. Each of the Wives is a unique person with different and varied personalities. Without being told, we figure out which one of them is the leader, the dreamer, the heart, and so on.

Mad Max: Fury Road

When I sat out to write The Stars Were Right, I made a decision early on that everything would be revealed from Wal’s perspective. He would tell what he knew as he came across it, and only so much as to keep things interesting. It would be done conversationally as if you were walking through a new city with a friend. After all, Wal doesn’t know everything, just as we, inhabitants in our world don’t know everything. We only know what is interesting to us. What Wal does reveal is enough for the reader to sort out for themselves, and it also leaves a mystery, and that keeps a world engaging. Wal’s belief in the world around him translates into belief for the reader and even in an unfamiliar world like the Territories can feel alive and real.

Readers are explorers. Whenever any of us set out to read, we want to explore the world you have built whether it is a high fantasy empire, a savage wasteland, a quirky small town, even a small family farm. Revealing that world to us naturally, and using the world to move the plot along is the perfect way to keep a reader engaged and the best way to build that world. This is the best takeaway we can get from Fury Road. Keep the worldbuilding simple and subtle, let the characters live in it as we live in our own world, don’t bog people down in exposition. It doesn’t matter how unusual or over the top your setting follow a similar pattern and like Fury Road, it’ll just work.